Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, opened in 1940 and was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz initially served as a detention center for political prisoners. However, it evolved into a network of camps where Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state were exterminated, often in gas chambers, or used as slave labor. Some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele (1911-79). During World War II (1939-45), more than 1 million people, by some accounts, lost their lives at Auschwitz. In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered the camp abandoned and sent an estimated 60,000 prisoners on a forced march to other locations. When the Soviets entered Auschwitz, they found thousands of emaciated detainees and piles of corpses left behind.
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This Day in History
World War II
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Did You Know?
In October 1944, a group of Auschwitz "Sonderkommando," young Jewish males responsible for removing corpses from crematoriums and gas chambers, staged a revolt. They assaulted their guards, using tools and makeshift explosives, and demolished a crematorium. All were apprehended and killed.
- Auschwitz: Genesis of Death Camps
- Auschwitz: The Largest of the Death Camps
- Auschwitz and Its Subdivisions
Auschwitz: Genesis of Death Camps
After the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, implemented a policy that came to be known as the "Final Solution." Hitler was determined not just to isolate Jews in Germany and countries annexed by the Nazis, subjecting them to dehumanizing regulations and random acts of violence. Instead, he became convinced that his "Jewish problem" would be solved only with the elimination of every Jew in his domain, along with artists, educators, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.
To complete this mission, Hitler ordered the construction of death camps. Unlike concentration camps, which had existed in Germany since 1933 and were detention centers for Jews, political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state, death camps existed for the sole purpose of killing Jews and other "undesirables," in what became known as the Holocaust.
Auschwitz: The Largest of the Death Camps
Auschwitz, the largest and arguably the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, opened in the spring of 1940. Its first commandant was Rudolf Höss (1900-47), who previously had helped run the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Auschwitz was located on a former military base outside OÅ›wiÄ™cim, a town in southern Poland situated near Krakow, one of the country's largest cities. During the camp's construction, nearby factories were appropriated and all those living in the area were forcibly ejected from their homes, which were bulldozed by the Nazis.
Auschwitz originally was conceived as a concentration camp, to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Once Hitler's Final Solution became official Nazi policy, however, Auschwitz was deemed an ideal death camp locale. For one thing, it was situated near the center of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
However, not all those arriving at Auschwitz were immediately exterminated. Those deemed fit to work were employed as slave labor in the production of munitions, synthetic rubber and other products considered essential to Germany's efforts in World War II.
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